We all have moments that we can pin-point, times in our lives which stand out, times which we may say shape us, and make us who we are. But does your story have to define you?
I was 18 years old, a few weeks away from starting a degree in physics when I was told I had a ‘lesion’ in my brain, a tumour which later turned out to be cancer. Amidst all the initial chaos, I have a crystal-clear memory of lying in an MRI scanner for two hours, after receiving some less than positive news. I remember my thought process and thinking that I wasn’t scared to die, but that I was scared to have lived a life that meant nothing. I came out and told my parents that I’d decided I wanted to be a doctor, instead of pursuing physics.
Fast forward two and a half years and as a first-year medical student I noticed that many students knew very little about the common signs and symptoms of cancer in young people, I gathered a few friends together in a pub to see what we could do about it and CATS was born, we’re now a national charity based in five major UK cities, with a mission to make sure every young person in the UK knows the common signs of cancer, what to look out for and when to see their GP.
Around a similar time, I was sat over a cup of tea, having a conversation about a book my friend Rachel had read. It was about maternal health, and somewhere out of this conversation came an idea for a charity scheme, supporting women in developing countries by twinning them with pregnant women in the UK, who would cover their health costs.
It seemed like a great idea but, at this point we didn’t know the slightest thing about charities, we knew nothing about developing countries and I’d only just started medical school so knew even less than nothing about maternal health or HIV.
But despite this the next day we sent some emails. Nine months later (and yes, I do appreciate the irony) Pregnancy Twinning was born. Based in Malawi, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the aim is to make sure every mum and baby has a fighting chance at life.
Often people assume that it’s ‘my story’ which is the sole driver behind what that I do. That my life’s path was moulded in one moment, fashioned one afternoon in an MRI scanner. From this assumption comes a very dangerous conclusion. That what we do is defined solely by our story.
It’s so easy to assume that because we don’t have the right backstory or expertise in any given area we are unqualified to go and make a difference in that area. When I’m looking for people to work with I always value attitudes over their experience or backstory. Why is that? Because I would always far sooner work with someone who is driven and passionate than I would someone who has the right experience. Expertise can be taught, experience can be acquired. However, it’s very difficult to teach someone to be driven, to be persistent.
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t my experience with cancer that drove me to taking two additional A-levels and applying for medical school. And it likely played a factor in starting up CATS. But through doing these things I started to discover the value of persistence, drive and dedication. Through reading about others who had started up businesses or NGO’s, I started to realise that to pursue your ideas and passions and dreams, it’s not expertise but instead the drive that is important.
I’m now working on my third start-up; it’s called Number 11. The idea is to create a drop-in centre out of a disused church building in my hometown of Stoke-on-Trent, providing relational and holistic support to vulnerable groups such as the long term unemployed, families in crisis, those with low-income and individuals struggling with substance addiction or mental health issues. It will all be based around a pay-as-you-feel café, which will provide free nutritious breakfasts and lunches to some of the most vulnerable people in the local area, where over a third of children are classed as being in food poverty.
It’s not my ‘cancer story’ which drove me to setting up Number 11. Instead it’s my discovery of the power of persistence, and a realisation that actually, with passion, dedication and drive, very normal people can make a real difference.
It doesn’t matter what your backstory is – whether you have an emotional sob story worthy of The X Factor, or simply you have an interest in something. Passion is so much more important when it comes to turning your ideas into a reality. Whether it’s an NGO, a business or something completely different, all you need is passion, dedication and persistence – they have no limits.
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